Written by Nan Kuhlman, Reprinted from Monrovia Living Magazine
Bob Helbing: Living a Rich, Full Life
According to Bob Helbing, president of Monrovia HVAC company Air-Tro, Inc., “Before there was software, there was hardware, [and] before there were apps, there were pipes. The information superhighway is amazing, but traditional highways are pretty amazing, too.” For Bob Helbing and his family, including wife Erin and sons Sean, Matthew, and JJ, a rich, full life means remembering that beyond the glitz of technology lives the stability of family-owned businesses that make our community better by not being “afraid to break a sweat and get their hands dirty.”
Helbing is a strong believer in skilled trades, noting that our communities rely on a physical infrastructure that needs to be maintained, repaired, and replaced. Helbing says, “We need people who can actually work with tools and materials,” noting that these folks are often those “who get satisfaction out of being given something broken and making it into something that works.” Though some may prefer to be at a desk and should pursue a career there, others want to be outside, making things happen, and Helbing asserts that labels such as “blue-collar” or “laborer” don’t pay the proper respect to skilled trades that is due them.
Helbing’s roots are deeply entrenched in the skilled trades. His parents, John and Helen Helbing, founded Air-Tro, Inc. 50 years ago on their 10th wedding anniversary, May 16, 1969. For the first few years, the family lived on Helen’s income from Pasadena City College as John worked to grow the business. Helen jokes that sons Anthony and Bob were the first salespeople, recounting how one Sunday, John had the boys (8 and 10 years old) put out fliers throughout their Pasadena neighborhood. The next morning, a local bowling alley called, needing help with their air conditioning system. As their “reward,” John took the boys to Disneyland and gave them each $20 to spend there. According to John, as the boys grew up, they became a sounding board for him, creating the beginnings of multi-level management and a much stronger company. John retired from the business in 1994, and currently, Anthony is the vice-president of sales, and Bob is the president of Air-Tro, Inc.
Bob’s post-secondary education began at Caltech where he graduated with a BS in mechanical engineering in 1983. As a licensed Professional Engineer (PE), Helbing worked as a turbomachine designer at Allied Signal, a ballistic missile analyst at TRW (which was acquired by Northrup Grumman in 2002), and as a software developer at Galt Engineering. While these jobs were interesting, the end of the Cold War in 1991 with the fall of the Berlin Wall meant that fewer defense engineers would be needed. Helbing knew the shift was coming, and he returned to his California roots at Air-Tro.
Running a business, though, is full of challenges. According to Helbing, “it’s like working for dozens of bosses rather than working for just one boss” because it is only through taking care of your customers, your staff, your vendors, and any government regulators that you can actually take care of your own business. “Owning a business isn’t a 9 to 5 job. It’s whatever it needs whenever it needs it, [and] that means nights and weekends,” Helbing says. He asserts that having a great team like he has at Air-Tro is essential and that it “makes all the difference in the world.”
Legacy is a big part of Air-Tro. Helbing notes that many of their employees are 2nd or 3rd generation employees, and a number of their customers are also 2nd or 3rd generation customers. “I’m a third generation engineer and a fourth generation contractor,” Helbing says. “My parents are from the Midwest, but my brother and I are native-born Californians, [and] I have fourth-generation Californians as cousins.”
Helbing sees the legacy of Air-Tro as being intricately linked to service within the community. His first experience in leadership in the Monrovia community was in organizations that promoted skilled labor. “I’ve been on the Foothill Workforce Development Board for about 15 years, and I also served as President of the Institute of Heating and Air Conditioning Industries, a local trade group with about 350 members,” he says. The next logical step was community service organizations, like the Monrovia Rotary and more recently, the Monrovia Chamber of Commerce.
Living a rich, full life for Bob Helbing means being actively involved in the legacy of a family-owned business with a 50-year history as well as sinking deep roots of service in the community of Monrovia. “It’s a rich, full life,” Helbing says. “If you’re bored, you’re doing it wrong.”